University of East Anglia researchers cautiously optimistic CO2 from the world's biggest emitter may already be falling due in part to slowing economic growth
China's greenhouse gases may have already peaked back in 2013, scientists believe, sparking "cautious optimism" that overall emissions from the world's second largest economy may be declining much faster than expected.
After two decades of rapidly rising emissions from China, a study led by researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) suggests slowing economic growth in the country in recent years has made it easier to reduce it greenhouse gas emissions.
The study, published yesterday in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows China's emissions peaked in 2013 at a level of 9.5 gigatons of CO2 and have declined each year from 2014 to 2016.
It suggests China may have already met its Paris Agreement pledge more than a decade early, with the country having targeted a peak in its emissions by 2030, and could raise hopes that rapid decarbonisation of the global economy may still be possible despite preliminary indications that global emissions ticked-up 1.4 per cent in 2017.
The research used the latest available energy, economic and industry data and was led by scientists from the UEA, the University of Cambridge and University College London, together with researchers in China and the US.
China's 4.2 per cent decline in emissions between 2013 and 2016 is largely associated with changes in industrial structure and a decline in the share of coal used for energy, according to the study. The country has in recent years scrapped or paused the development of a significant number of planned coal fired power plants as it simultaneously ploughs more investment into renewable energy.
Moreover, decreasing energy intensity (energy per unit of GDP) and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of energy) have also contributed to the decline, the research suggests.
However, the authors of the study said they remained only "cautiously optimistic" that CO2 from the world's highest-emitting economy may have already peaked, warning that emissions and economic growth could still fluctuate in the years to come.
In particular, if China's emissions have fallen primarily as a result of slowing economic activity, as happened in the US during the global financial crisis, it could mean renewed economic growth in China could reverse the decrease in emissions since 2013, they explained.
It is a source of concern that will only be amplified by recent preliminary emissions data from China for this year, which suggested emissions are rising again and climbed by around four per cent in the first quarter on the back of relatively strong economic growth.
On the other hand, changes in industrial activity, coal use and efficiency that have caused the recent decline in emissions may have taken a more permanent root in China's economy and long-term government policies as the country rolls out its emissions trading system, according to lead co-author Professor Dabo Guan from the UEA.
"As the world's top emitting and manufacturing nation, this reversal is cause for cautious optimism among those seeking to stabilise the Earth's climate," said Guan, who is Professor of climate change economics at the UEA. "Now, the important question is whether the decline in Chinese emissions will persist. We conclude that the decline of Chinese emissions is structural and is likely to be sustained if the growing industrial and energy system transitions continue. Government policies are also a sign that the decline in China's emissions will carry on."
Co-author Dr Jing Meng, who is also from the UEA, pointed to China's recent policy directive to cap coal power at four billion metric tonnes per year as further cause for optimism, as it would mean the country having to decrease coal's proportion in its energy mix from 64 per cent in 2015 to around 58 per cent by 2020.
"Both emissions and their underlying drivers will need to be carefully monitored, but the fact that China's emissions have decreased for several years - and more importantly the reasons why - give hope for further decreases going forward," said Meng.
The study, which was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), British Academy and Philip Leverhulme Prize, will inject some much needed optimism into the debate over whether rising emissions can be brought back under control. But at the same time everyone will be waiting for the finalised data for the next few years to see if China's falling emissions are the start of an encouraging trend or an ultimately disappointing blip.
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